Several religious leaders from various churches must have voted, about a century or more ago, to close Hell. Like some prisons, it has perhaps become overcrowded, and so nobody else can go there, even though some people are dying to get in. Why else would it sound so strange to hear it mentioned in a sermon-in church of all places? Maybe Hell has become the sort of topic, like for example, sin; something that fashionable people just do not discuss in church. It's not nice, it's not warm and fuzzy, and it contributes, no doubt, to global warming. The problem is, the ultimate "fire and brimstone" preacher in the Bible is Jesus Christ-no more Mr. Nice Guy to anyone shocked to learn it. Yes,
God "commandeth all men everywhere to repent."5 The Gospel command to repent is also a word of hope. It is centered on the grace of God, and the love of God demonstrated and revealed in the cross of Christ. 6 How simple and yet powerful are those words of
Why are we given this selection from the Gospels?
The simple answer (so obvious once we realize it) is that, in her wisdom, the Church puts before our eyes this picture of our Lord Jesus Christ, from his first coming, that most closely resembles his second coming. Here is the Lord who suddenly comes to his temple and cleanses it. We see the Lord who casts out from the place of that holy presence of the Shekinah, those who have been living unrepentant in sin. The authority of the Lord, to mete out judgment, to evict sinners from his presence, to cleanse, to purge, and to purify, is seen in this Gospel passage. That harder side of the One who was able to forgive and heal with compassion is here made visible. This picture shows the judgment of the Lord; it shows his unique authority as the Word and Son of the Everlasting Father, that power that comes so genuinely from within Himself that all of these men felt compelled to obey His voice, and had no power in themselves to resist His words of eviction from the
St. Peter wrote: "For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?"10 If we submit to the work of the Holy Spirit among us, we will experience that gentle judgment that saves us here and now. After all, even though St. Peter makes direct reference to the End, that is the Last Day when Christ comes again, and does so with words to place the fear of God in our hearts, he begins with "the time is come." If the message is about "the end" of those who are removed, thrown into Ge'enna with its hungry worms and perpetual burnings, what judgment is there that begins now in the house of God? Jesus cast out the works of darkness from the house of God, the temple in Jerusalem, casting out those who had worked that darkness openly and unashamed, and who insulted the holy place no less than the sons of Eli had done long before.11 But, St. Peter urges us with a present hope: "For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God." What is this judgment that must begin now? Pray God, let it be for each one of us the very self-examination that aids those who repent to make a good confession of their sins with all of the sincerity of a heart moved by the Holy Spirit.
Let us recall that other name, that specifically Anglican name that we give to the main service each and every Sunday: "The Holy Communion." Other names are good too, such as The Divine Liturgy (the Orthodox name), the Mass, and the Holy Eucharist. But, I like the Anglican name, The Holy Communion. It was first used to make something very clear to the people of the Church of England, which is that the purpose of the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, is that it be taken and received. The Catechism tells us that two of the sacraments are generally necessary to salvation, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The purpose of coming and receiving this Blessed Sacrament is to feed on the Living Bread that comes down from heaven, which if a man eat, he may live forever. Jesus told us that He is the food and drink of eternal life, and to eat His flesh and drink His blood.12 First we make confession of sin based on the self-examination we should make every time; as St.Paul wrote: "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup."13 It is in that self-examination and the resulting sincere confession, that we prepare for the coming of the Lord right now, that is, his coming to our altar, and then into our very bodies as we eat the food and drink the cup of eternal life-His flesh and blood. If we live always ready for this Sacrament, we will live always ready to meet the Lord face to face.
In today's Gospel passage, we see important elements of His Second Coming, elements that are true to the Person of the Son of God, the everlasting Son of the everlasting Father. He is the only king and savior. He is the judge “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 14 Judgment will begin at the House of God, until His whole creation is cleansed and purified, made ready for a habitation of His righteousness, a dwelling place of His glory among men. The purpose of a Penitential season is to learn to sharpen and focus our self-examination, the same self-examination that we should do every time we draw near to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I know that a “feel good” religion is the popular model for success in today’s “spiritual” market; but the only good feeling we should ever trust is that spoken of by the Psalmist: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”15
1. John 5:28, 29
2. II Corinthians 5:11
3. Mark 9:42-50
4. Isaiah 66:24
5. Acts 17:30
6. Romans 5:8
7. I Corinthians 15:3
8 From Weary of Earth and laden with my sin, Hymn 58 in The Hymnal 1940.
9. John 12:31, 32
10. I Peter 4:17, 18
11. I Samuel 2:12f
12. John 6:26-59
13. I Corinthians 11: 29
14. Matthew. 3:12
15. Psalm 32:1
16. I Corinthians 10:16